Nature Watch by John Large: Stoat and ducks face off over golf

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A FRIEND from Horncastle told me a really odd story this week. She was playing golf at West Ashby when her ball ran into a hole - not THE hole with a flag in it, but a random hole halfway up the fairway.

As she approached the hole, she was startled by a brown streak that emerged from it, shot through her legs and scuttled to the bank of the nearby stream.

It was a stoat, and as she watched it appeared again at the top of the bank, dragging a baby mallard with which it absconded, despite the vicious efforts of the mother.

She kept up a crescendo of “Quark quark! Quark quark!” until her throat was sore, when sadly she had to return to guard the rest of her large family.

Two points about this strange story intrigue me.

First, how can the shock of a golf ball suddenly landing on you spark off the completely different reaction of a compulsion to have a good meal?

It is almost as if a near escape from disaster was compensated for by the stoat rewarding itself a treat. Or were the two incidents entirely unrelated?

The other factor is that the stoat appeared to know in advance exactly where to go for its next meal and had noted the mallard nest previously.

It seems strange that a stoat should exercise such self-discipline as to leave it for a later meal and risk other predators getting there first.

Some birds, due to the fact they are clumsy fliers, have to nest on the ground.

These nests are more at risk than those built in trees or on cliffs or buildings.

It is quite common to come across eggs or infants that have been crushed by grazing cattle, sheep or horses.

They are also at risk from agricultural machinery and an alarming variety of predators.

Birds born in nests on the ground, such as ducks, waders, divers and grebes, are invariably active as chicks, that are soon able to fend for themselves.

The incubation period is longer, but they hatch with eyes open and clad in down.

On the other hand, the young of perching birds (woodpeckers, swifts, owls, hawks, pigeons and so on) are all born naked, blind and helpless, although after a shorter period of incubation.

The helpless ones get remarkable service from both parents even when they are fully fledged.

The other day I watched two parent starlings ministering to their brood nesting in an old yew tree.

They were at it all day long, flying out and away, straight as arrows to their favourite hunting grounds.

Then they were down walking about, eyes down, and presently darting their beaks into the ground and dragging out some succulent worm or insect.

Back to the nest with it they would hurry, and deposit it into the gaping mouth of some lucky infant.

Some birds keep this up until the young are as big as they are, strapping big fellows who confront their careworn parents with open beaks and pathetic, flute-like notes of appeal.

But once the next brood is born they are abandoned to their own devices, no longer of consequence to their parents.